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During sunrise at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond on Wednesday (above), the sun had an extra tinge of red due to smoke created by the massive wildfires burning in the Western U.S. The same effect was visible with Tuesday’s sunset (right). Winds aloft carried unusually dense smoke across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast at an altitude of several kilometers. Surface air quality remained good across Virginia, according to the Department of Environmental Quality. West Coast firefighters say this year’s blazes are some of the worst they’ve seen. (Details, Page A12.)

Wildfire haze drifts east

Senate passes legislation to let the state inspect Virginia's ICE facilities

Senate lawmakers on Wednesday approved legislation that would establish state oversight of Virginia immigration facilities, allowing the state to inspect and require health safety standards of privately owned federal detention centers such as those in Caroline County and Farmville.

The 21-16 vote on Senate Bill 5017 would change the state’s definition of “local correctional facility” to allow jurisdiction over health inspections. Under current law, the Virginia Department of Health could not require the facilities to implement recommendations and had to be invited in.

“We have seen egregious and horrible stories of ICE facilities in other states,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who proposed the legislation. “This bill will give us the teeth to allow our people to go in and make sure that they are being maintained in proper sanitation. Get inspectors in.”

Its adoption reflects outrage among some elected officials and among immigrant advocates around the country following whistleblower reports that a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Georgia forced hysterectomies on detained immigrants (ICE denied the allegations) and that the federal agency flew detainees to Virginia so the planes could transport agents to quell Washington, D.C., protests on June 2.

The transfers sent to Farmville’s immigrant detention center spurred the largest COVID-19 outbreak in an ICE facility, with 97% of detainees testing positive.

“This is the first time, as far as we can tell, that Virginia is tackling transparency and accountability at its two ICE detention centers,” said Luis Oyola, an organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “ICE has made it clear they aren’t looking out for detainee health. It’s time for Virginians to step in.”

Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, who opposed the legislation, said the bill would affect the economy of surrounding rural areas.

“That is a national-level issue. We need to talk to Congress folks,” Peake said. “It brings millions of dollars into the local economy. I’m concerned that by trying to control ICE at the state level, interfering with a federal pre-emption law, we could risk losing all those jobs.”

In the months leading up to the Farmville facility’s first COVID-19 death on Aug. 5, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine urged the federal government to intervene, citing a “clear risk to individuals within the facility” as well as staff and released detainees.

On July 22, Gov. Ralph Northam called on the president to send in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to inspect the facility after asking for more COVID-19 testing in May. By then, the number of people infected ballooned to more than 230 individuals.

The CDC responded with an on-site visit the week of Aug. 15 that found testing delays affected the center’s ability to isolate and quarantine individuals.

In a Sept. 10 statement, a spokesperson for Immigration Centers of America, which privately owns the facility, said that “there is no clinically indicated need for additional testing at this time” but that it will continue to consult with the health department and follow CDC recommendations.

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Delays in COVID test results at Farmville's ICE facility fueled outbreak, CDC report says. Some took almost a month

Testing delays in late June and early July affected the isolation protocols of Farmville’s ICE facility, with many of the results unknown for nearly a month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in an August report made public Tuesday.

Residents in the general population resided in multiple dorms while awaiting test results, fueling an outbreak prompted by the transfers of 74 people from Florida and Arizona that led to a lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the center.

On Friday, three days after ICE asked a federal judge to lift the ban on transfers, The Washington Post reported that ICE flew the June detainees into Virginia so agents could be transported to quell protests in Washington, D.C. The federal agency initially said the transfers were made to alleviate overcrowding.

Within weeks, the 74 transfers into Farmville sparked the largest COVID-19 outbreak in an ICE facility in the country. While ICE and Immigration Centers of America, which privately owns the federal facility, said in the lawsuit that they acted quickly, people detained protested facility conditions and lack of testing on July 1 and were met with pepper spray, according to sworn statements. Jeffrey Crawford, the facility director, said in the lawsuit that the pepper spray was due to detainees not complying with morning count.

Six were hospitalized by July 11.

Three of the four detained people listed in the lawsuit said they had symptoms but weren’t tested until at least a week later. One didn’t learn of his negative result until July 30.

Staff began screening for fever and other symptoms among the general population 19 days after the 74 transfers arrived, according to the CDC report. By June 22, almost 70% of the transfers had tested positive.

Of the facility’s 324 initial tests from June 2 to July 3, 64 couldn’t be processed due to sample collection errors at the center or processing errors at the lab. Of those, only 63 were retested July 14 to 16. The remaining person was James Hill, who was hospitalized due to severe symptoms. He died Aug. 5.

The center, which can house up to 700 immigrants, is operating at less than 30% capacity and currently has zero active cases.

Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of immigrant advocacy at Legal Aid Justice Center, said the report showed Farmville’s ICE facility has a long way to go before reopening its doors.

“For Farmville to tout its supposedly excellent record since mid-July, with the population at one-quarter capacity and a judicial hold on new detainee transfers, is like the principal of a closed school arguing that because they’ve had no COVID-19 infections so far this school year they should be allowed to reopen as normal,” said Sandoval-Moshenberg.

According to Robert Brown, a spokesperson for Immigration Centers of America, the delays in test results mirrors a national backlog following an inundation of tests sent to labs. Brown added that ICA isolated detainees based on test results while medical staff continued to screen the entire population twice daily and 97% were asymptomatic.

But in its report, the CDC said the risk of reintroducing the virus into the facility still exists and recommended a continued surveillance of symptoms among detainees, staff and visitors; testing of detained people at the time of transfer and release; and testing asymptomatic close contacts of COVID-positive people.

In a Sept. 2 news release, ICA said it implemented CDC recommendations — which it called minor — such as more signs to promote social distancing, replacing masks and ensuring staff were assigned to the same dorms. CDC team members noted some were done during the visit. In a statement Wednesday, ICA added that it has “acted upon and implemented all recommendations that are in our purview.”

ICA also said that after the June transfer, the facility began testing the entire population. The CDC report states that staff offered mass testing to the general population, excluding the transferred detainees who were already tested, starting June 18.

Homer Venters, an epidemiologist and former chief medical officer of New York City jails hired by lawyers to inspect the facility, wrote in his inspection report that Crawford, the facility director, planned to decrease the intensity of COVID-19 testing and screening efforts — a move Venters called “premature” due to deficient screening systems.

Another inspection report conducted by William Reese, a primary care physician with more than 20 years of experience in Virginia correctional facilities hired by ICE and ICA, reported otherwise, finding the facility in full compliance.

The CDC suggested providing additional spacing in dorms, which detainees have said is impossible due to the beds being bolted down, and educating staff on the importance of proper use of personal protective equipment and not working if sick. This comes after the CDC report noted inconsistent use of PPE and improperly worn masks among staff — a point noted in Venters’ report but contradicted in Reese’s report — and 10 employees reporting working while sick.

Brown, the ICA spokesperson, clarified that documented medical records did not show detainees exhibiting symptoms and all who mentioned symptoms, including staff, to the CDC tested negative. Brown added that in the questionnaire provided to staff, they were asked whether they’d had symptoms such as fatigue, headaches and sore muscles in a two-week time frame.

“Just because a staff member experienced a headache during a 14-day period doesn’t prohibit them from working,” said Brown. “We’re confident that our employees are accurately self-reporting symptoms, which the negative test results of all of these individuals confirms.”

Farmville Detention Center staff in the CDC report said the movement of asymptomatic detained people was limited to their assigned dorms while awaiting test results “unless movement in the FDC was needed for reasons of transfer, release, or security.” One dorm at the time of the report had 71 people inside and 15 total units with individual cells reserved for medical housing, solitary confinement and protective custody.

In the report, the CDC recommended an alternate plan to individually house suspected cases with pending results — since cohorting could increase the likelihood of infection — with testing of each close contact every three to seven days. The agency also suggested quarantining a detainee for 14 days prior to release. Farmville Detention Center cited not being able to do so due to being given one or two days’ notice for release.

“Without strict adherence to mitigation efforts, staff could introduce infection to facilities after becoming infected in their community or risk introducing infection to their families and communities following infection in the facility,” said the CDC report.

Senate panel kills bill to require paid leave for quarantined employees

Much to the delight of business groups and dismay of employee advocates, a Senate committee killed legislation on Wednesday to require employers to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave for workers who have to quarantine because of exposure or infection by COVID-19.

The 14-1 vote by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee effectively closes the possibility of passing a sick leave requirement during the special General Assembly session called in part to address the effects of the COVID-19 public health emergency on Virginians. The same committee killed a similar bill earlier in the special session, also by a wide bipartisan margin.

Only Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, voted against the motion to kill House Bill 5116, proposed by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William.

Guzman, a likely candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor next year, said the committee killed legislation that would have allowed people infected by COVID-19 or exposed to the virus to “not have to choose between a paycheck and further spreading the disease.”

“This is dangerous to public health and a slap in the face to hardworking Virginians across the commonwealth,” she said in response to the Senate committee vote.

The bill, as adopted by the House last week, would have applied only to businesses with more than 25 employees. It would not have applied to state employees unless federal emergency funding were available to pay for it. The requirement also would have ended with the public health emergency, but no later than July 1, 2021.

“This is not an anti-business bill,” Guzman told the committee.

However, Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, called the legislation “insensitive” to the plight of businesses under severe financial stress because of restrictions on their operations and public fear of contracting the coronavirus during the public health emergency that Gov. Ralph Northam declared on March 12.

“We have no business placing additional stress on our businesses at this period of time,” Norment said.

Guzman, a native of Peru, said the vote showed that the Senate is insensitive to the stress faced by low-wage workers in the pandemic, especially people of color, who face a predicament she knows too well.

“When I first came to this country as a single mother with $300 to my name, I worked three minimum wage jobs with no benefits and sometimes had to leave my sick child home so that I could make rent,” she said. “Black and Latinx people have been disproportionately affected by this disease in part because many are frontline workers with no benefits who can’t afford to stay home. They are making the same decision I would have made.”

“This bill would have saved lives,” Guzman said. “I never again want to hear any elected official brag that Virginia is #1 for business when today’s vote proves we are still last for workers.”

In contrast, business groups quickly hailed the committee decision to kill the bill. “Small businesses are already facing pandemic-related financial burdens and restrictions on their operations, so the last thing they needed is another government mandate that would add costs and reduce their flexibility,” said Nicole Riley, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, representing 6,000 small businesses across Virginia.

Riley said businesses do not oppose helping employees affected by COVID-19, but don’t support a requirement that would apply to all situations.

“Each business is different, and they need to figure out their own best solution,” she said. “Tying their hands behind their back with another one-size-fits-all mandate would have made their economic recovery even more difficult.”

A separate bill to ensure that workers’ compensation covers the costs of COVID-19 for infected employees is likely headed to a similar fate. The commerce committee referred House Bill 5028, proposed by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, which already let die without action a similar bill proposed by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

WATCH NOW: Stoney wants $500,000 for health equity studies as Richmond's estimated budget surplus rises to $13.75M

Richmond finance officials now estimate that the city will have a $13.75 million surplus from the closeout of the 2020 fiscal year, a $9 million increase above a preliminary estimate the city reported last month.

After anticipating this spring that the city would need to draw $6.6 million from a rainy day fund for an impending budget deficit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city may instead allocate just as much to the emergency fund and also spend more than $1 million on initiatives to help retired city employees and residents who have been disproportionately affected by the health crisis.

In June, with the pandemic and social unrest affecting the city’s economy — forcing some businesses to close or reduce their operations — the City Council agreed to amend the 2020 fiscal year general fund budget, reducing it by $11.4 million to $745.8 million.

“We are pleased to report that local tax collections ended up even better than our most recent projections,” Director of Finance John Wack said in a news release Tuesday. “This, coupled with such efficiencies as a temporary hiring freeze and moratorium on discretionary spending, is leading to even stronger rainy day reserves as we close out the fiscal year.”

The city’s fiscal year runs July 1 to June 30.

During a news conference Wednesday, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said half of the surplus will be stashed away in the rainy day fund, but he will propose that $1.4 million be earmarked for improving benefits for retired city employees, a racial equity study, and an initiative that would tackle racial disparities in health care.

Stoney said he would propose $500,000 for the health care equity study but did not specify how much would go toward the two other items.

“The pandemic has hurt us all. We recognize that. But some — through systemic oppression and racism — have borne the brunt; namely our Black and brown residents,” he said.

About every four in five people infected by the disease in the city have been Black or Latino, mirroring disparities that have been seen across the nation during the pandemic.

Stoney and Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico County health districts, offered only a few details about how the $500,000 might be spent, but suggested that it could be used to address specific issues other than the coronavirus, such as racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality rates.

“We’re still mapping out the details of it,” Avula said. “It’s one-time funding so we need to be realistic and ensure that it goes to piloting efforts that could then become sustainable through ongoing revenue streams or future commitments from the city.”

The remaining surplus money will go to a capital maintenance fund.

Coverage inside

Virus in Va.

Cases rise by 845, with death count up by 45. Page A2

VRS update

Unfunded liability of pension funds has risen. Page A2

Federal Reserve

Rates may stay near zero through 2023. Page A10

Many questions

U.S. outlines plan for free COVID-19 vaccines. Page A12